The murder this summer of Maj. Gen. Harry Greene in Afghanistan provides a subtle but disturbing hint of an effective insurgent intelligence network reporting on Afghan and Allied operations in the Kabul area.
Four years ago, an improvised explosive device attack on a U.S. convoy in Kabul on May 18, 2010, killed one of the most senior officers to die in Afghanistan prior to Maj. Gen. Greene. In addition to U.S. Col. John McHugh and Canadian Col. Geoff Parker, four other U.S. soldiers and about a dozen Afghan civilians were killed. Many more were injured.
Few know that this convoy was supposed to carry a U.S. major general who, like Greene, was scheduled to visit an Afghan National Army training activity in the Kabul area.
Our enemy does not think like we do. But the psychological tendency of intelligence analysts to think they do, a phenomena known as “mirror imaging,” can skew intelligence analysis and delay the process of arriving at insights into an enemy’s thought process.
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Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal indirectly referred to this lack of sufficient cultural awareness when he cited the wrong “mindset” as a hindrance to allied operations in Afghanistan in an August 2009 report to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Another senior U.S. officer says the need to overcome “cultural ignorance” is a most important lesson to learn from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
After the May 2010 attack, an intelligence officer said, “We don’t have any information that they were targeting the specific group.” But this is not the way insurgent groups work. In 1980 Israeli Gen. Schlomo Gazit described terrorist operations to American intelligence officials, stating, “targets for terrorist operations are set only in general terms and the way to accomplish the agreed goals are left for improvised tactics as dictated by circumstances.”
In 2009 a senior Afghan Intelligence Officer, a veteran Mujahideen fighter from the 1980s Soviet-Afghan War, described to this author the patient and careful planning of an ambush conducted during that war. Civilian operatives kept the military base where the convoy originated under careful surveillance for months. Unknown to them, other sources operated from inside the base. This “cell” structure, in which different teams do not know of the existence of other teams for security reasons, is known as “compartmenting” of operations. It is common in terrorist and espionage networks.
From daily reports on the traffic in and out of the base, senior intelligence officers operating from camps in the mountainous rural areas outside of Kabul, and from safe havens in neighboring Pakistan, developed a clear picture of the patterns of activity.
Once this type of detailed intelligence is collected, it can be reused. The site of the May 18, 2010, attack was almost identical to the site of an Oct. 29, 2011, attack on an armored bus known as a “rhino” that killed 12 Americans, three Afghan civilians, a Canadian soldier, and an Afghan policeman.
German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously described war as an extension of policy, where policy is conducted using violence rather than diplomatic notes. The message the enemy seeks to send is one of fear. To cause the U.S. to distrust our Afghan allies. But those who have served there know we have Afghan friends and that many would lose their lives if the insurgent wins.
If there is a silver lining in this tragedy, it is that “insider” attacks like this one have declined since they peaked in 2012. The result of professional teamwork between Afghan, the U.S., and allied soldiers. But the threat of “insider” intelligence remains. Undeterred by the threat, Afghan and allied intelligence must redouble efforts to protect their security forces and the Afghan population from terrorists.
As we improve, however, so does the enemy. Having fought for their freedom with the help of Americans and other allies, as America fought for her freedom with the help of French and other allies, there are steely-eyed Afghan patriots, like the three Afghan generals wounded in the attack that killed Gen. Harry Greene, who understand as did Thomas Jefferson that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.
Lawrence A. Levine is a veteran intelligence officer now living in Leavenworth. In addition to training American intelligence officers, he served in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2010, where his duties included the training of Afghan intelligence officers.